Sunday, July 19, 2009...1:55 pm

Journalism's uncertain future

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As they say, prediction is hard – especially about the future.
Many years ago – sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s – I started to take note of the technological change revamping the journalism business, and I started to make some fanciful predictions about the direction it would take.
Anyone who takes an interest in futurology – the prediction of future technological and social change extrapolated from present day conditions – knows how hard it is to get it right.
Paleofuture is a great site that collects past predictions about the shape of things to come.
Appropriately, for the current debate on the future of media, one prediction from 1939 (as shown above) is for a “Radio-newspaper receiver for home use”.
I had similar problems.
For example. I was a printy. That is, my whole view of how publishing worked was skewed towards the print model.
So I thought the biggest threat to my job might be clever software that automatically formatted pages using clever templates without the need for layout subs.
I also pondered the possibility that trade press news stories could be created using algorithms that put together facts in a more or less coherent way without the need for writers or sub-editors – instead it would just use raw research.
And,  in that era of offshore outsourcing, I fretted that this work would be sent out to India, or South Africa, to be done for a pittance, with the files sent over the phone line.
Looking back, these ideas seem nonsensical. But at the time, though slightly far-fetched, they were reasonable extrapolations of the current trend of smarter software producing print content.
How things change.
Yes, the template model is here – but it’s here for blogging and other creative sites (Flickr, YouTube etc). And it’s not that software is allowing publishers to cut jobs while producing their print magazines. The web is allowing any user to be a publisher online, and is starting to destroy the print publishing model.
If you want proof of my incomprehension, it’s there is the lack of any blog entry about this from me from 1997. Because if I had grasped the web at all, I would have been publishing then. And I wouldn’t have been writing about clever layout software. Unless I was stupid.
Even the outsourcing thing hasn’t worked out in the way I thought.
True – online market places allow anyone from any part of the world to bid for any creative media work anywhere. But actually, timezone differences still matter.
Instead, the sheer accessibility of the web and its publishing tools means that prices are driven down low enough so that you don’t need to go abroad to find your cheap creative labour. Instead, it’s available right here in the UK, or US, in the form of the tide of journalism graduates that flood out of our journalism courses with little chance of a real job to go to.
It’s a paradigm shift. One that I could not foresee.
Yes, we had the internet then. But I just couldn’t see that it would eclipse push-style print publishing.
And though even relatively early adopters back in the mid-90s got web space for free with their ISP account, I was even less able to predict the effect of the web’s later creative tools. Create a web site? Uh – why? Isn’t that a bit… geeky?
It was only when the web’s networking capability became clear that I realised its power.
Yes – I’m a bit slow on the uptake.
But that’s because I didn’t come to the internet as many of its early adopters did – through bulletin boards and chat forums. They were all about the web as communication. I was all about the web as content.
I grasped this a lot later, and I have posted about the tendency of the web to be about connectivity over content. And it’s something an awful lot of journalists and academics still underestimate the importance of.
So. Let’s be clear. No one has a clue what will happen to journalism over the next decade or so. Not even Clay Shirky, who’s actually been pretty much ahead of the curve on a lot of this. He even says so in his essay, Newspapers and thinking the unthinkable, and makes the point that, historically:

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points.

Which experiment will work for journalism? If any?
I have no idea. And, I promise, nor do you. We simply don’t know yet.

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